Memories of my time at a university tea club in Japan

About our club

While I was studying in Japan in order to research Japanese tea culture, I joined the tea club at my University the Momoyama Gakuin Daigaku (桃山学院大学), also known as St. Andrew’s University. As not only a foreigner but also as a graduate student I joined the tea club where the other new members had just graduated from high school and all members were much younger than me. However, despite the strict seniority system (nenkōjoretsu 年功序列, some readers might be familiar with the terms kōhai [後輩, junior] and senpai [先輩, senior]), I was luckily accepted as a regular beginner. That I could speak Japanese definitely helped me, as did the fact that in the world of chanoyu (茶の湯, Japanese tea ceremony), there is a lot of new vocabulary to learn as a beginner, so we newcomers all helped each other learn everything from scratch.

In my year, we were eight students and the entire club had approximately 20 members. There were other foreign (exchange) students as well who joined the club with me – some of them were very passionate about tea, some were just casual visitors. But everyone was welcome: in one year, an elderly lady who had enrolled at university after retirement also joined our club, but unfortunately had to quit after a few months. Altogether, I think that our club was quite exceptional when it comes to Japanese club culture. (I also joined the kendo club, but there were much stricter structures and I never was accepted as a member to the same extent…)

Practice at our club

Our tea club held okeiko (お稽古, practice) twice a week. We practiced the Urasenke (裏千家) school of chanoyu, the largest school for chanoyu in Japan and internationally. Some days, we would practice by ourselves while on other days, we had a teacher from the Urasenke headquarters come to our club. She was very kind and barely ever said a strict word.

In the beginning, we had to learn how to walk inside the tea room and remember all the names of all the utensils. We learned the basics of how to behave as a guest and how to do tatedashi (点て出し), which means serving confectionery and tea from the mizuya (水屋, tea kitchen). We had to learn tatedashi in a very short time in order to be able to serve tea during the spring time tea gathering, which was the first tea gathering or chakai (茶会) of the year.

After the tea gathering, we started with warigeiko. Warigeiko (割り稽古, split exercise). We learned the correct movements of each procedure, such as cleaning / purifying the utensils or folding the fukusa (袱紗, tea cloth). After a couple of months, we were able to perform our first temae (点前, serving the tea as the host) and have our teacher watch us and give us advice on how to improve. There wasn’t much time left until the autumn tea gathering (where the first year students only help with small tasks) and then the University festival chakai was our big debut: the first temae at a tea gathering. It was furo no hakobi temae with kazaritsuke (飾り付け風炉の点前, which is difficult to translate. It is basically a temae where we use the kettle with a brazier like during the warm season, the utensils are all carried to the tea room by the temae and at the end of the ceremony, the host presents the used utensils to the guests).

During the second year at University, we barely did temae, since it was our turn to learn the role of hantō (半東) who explains the goings-on of the ceremony to the guests and supports the temae. For me, this was the hardest part as I struggled to remember the names of all the utensils. We also had to teach warigeiko and temae to the new club members.

In our third and last year at the tea club, we could perform other temae than in our first year, such as ro no temae (炉の点前, using a sunken hearth, typical for the cold season). Since it was the year of our “graduation” from the club, we had to perform at a big tea gathering outside of our university, which was held in autum. For this event, we split into two groups. Four of us did ryūrei temae (立礼点前) and of us did tana no temae (棚の点前, temae with a shelve). While the latter is more formal, ryūrei temae is a more casual version, using a tea table called misono-dana (御園棚) where the host and the guests can sit on chairs in a more relaxed position. As I was in the group who did ryūrei temae, I unfortunately never really had the chance to practice tana no temae a lot. But it was also a nice experience to learn ryūrei temae.

tana temae
An example for a tana no temae setting (there are countless variations)

Annual events

As mentioned above, we had three big tea gatherings per year. The first was the spring tea gathering at University (春季学内茶会, shunki gakunai chaseki), the autumn tea gathering outside of our university (shūki gakugai chaseki) and then the university festival tea gathering (桃山祭茶席, Momoyama-sai chaseki). There were also times when we served tea to guests casually, like at the open campus events.

Apart from these events, we celebrated hatsugama for ourselves. And I was very much looking forward to that event because it was the only opportunity to enjoy koicha (濃茶 thick tea – I explain koicha in my entry about cha-ji and cha-kai) at our club. And I love koicha, unlike many of our club members. However, I never was lucky enough to be chosen as one of the students to perform the koicha temae (only three third-year students at our university were given this chance).

We had two big cleaning days called ōsōji (大掃除 big clean-up) during the holidays, in addition to the regular cleaning before and after every exercising day.

During the summer holidays we also gathered at university to practice tea for two or three days (and our teacher visited us for one day) where we stayed on campus, playing card games all night. And we even had a trip another prefecture during our vacation. In our first year, we went to Kanazawa where we visited Kenroku-en (兼六園), a famous Japanese garden and joined a wagashi (和菓子, Japanese confectionary) making workshop. The next year, we went to Fukuoka; in my last year, I, unfortunately, couldn’t join the trip.

After regular okeiko, we sometimes had dinner together or enjoyed an evening of karaoke, and a few times, we played basketball together on weekends. After graduation, we did a short trip to Kyōto together and visited Daitoku-ji (大徳寺), a temple with a deep connection with chanoyu.

Kanbu – organizing the club

We also had to do kanbu (幹部, club board) which means managing the club itself in our third year. We had a club leader, vice club leader, event organizer, accountant, a person in charge of mails and shopping, etc. I was the club’s accountant and though it kept me quite busy, it was also fun to get the “full” experience of what a club at a Japanese university is like. It also helped me to better integrate and become closer friends with the members of my year.

toko no ma
Toko no ma (alcove) – taken after a tea gathering in our tea room.

Impressions of our chashitsu (茶室, tea house)

When the leaves turn red, it’s time for our university festival tea gathering…
tea house summer
…and during the hot summer season, we had our tea camp where we stayed at university and practiced all day for two or three days.

Online References

桃山学院大学「キャンパスリポート ― 茶道部が、お茶会をおこないました」(『 桃山学院大学 』) (2010年03月04日確認)。

桃山学院大学「クラブナビ ― 茶道部」(『 桃山学院大学 』) (2010年03月04日確認)。

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